Posted tagged ‘John Vandelaare’

The End of the Blizzard

January 5, 2012

After we finally had our first winter storm this week, I thought I would post one of my favorite passages from my novel Superior Heritage. This scene takes place after a blizzard keeps John and Chad Vandelaare, in their early teens, home from school for the day. The boys go out into the storm as it is dying down with their dog named Dickens.

From Superior Heritage:

Being cooped up in the house all day made John and Chad anxious to explore the newly created landscape left by the blowing wind and drifting snow. Ellen was hesitant to let them go outside, but after supper, when the visibility had increased until individual snowflakes could be distinguished as they fell, she finally consented. It would not be dark for another hour, so the boys had plenty of time to trudge over the snowbanks and burn off their excess energy.

John and Chad put on their long johns and flannel shirts, then their snow pants and jackets. They wrapped scarves around their necks, pulled hats down over their ears, and slipped on boots and mittens. Before they went out the door, they were already starting to sweat from wearing so many layers, but they would be well protected once outside. John suggested Dickens should join them since he must be equally tired of staying inside. During the day Dickens had only made quick bathroom trips into the driveway, just a few feet from the garage door, but now he could wander free until he complained of cold feet.

Soon the boys and Dickens were outside. They quickly discovered the wind was still strong, so seeking protection, they set Dickens up on the high snowbank, then climbed up themselves. They trudged on top of the snow, at times six feet above the buried grass, until they reached the shelter of the neighboring woods. They found a giant pine tree whose lowest branches, usually eight feet above the ground, were now heavily weighed down with snow, until they curved down three feet to touch the top of the frozen banks. The boys were forced to bend down to enter beneath the tree whose branches were too high for them to reach on summer days. Beneath the tree’s bent limbs, they felt sheltered in their own little lodge house. A small depression around the tree formed snow walls to provide further insulation from the bitter chill wind, while leaving room for John, Chad, and Dickens to sit and watch the dying storm. Exhausted from the heavy trudge into the woods, the boys and Dickens were content to listen to the storm’s fury. The dazzling whiteness of everything was breathtaking—snow was clustered against the brown and gray tree trunks, turning them into giant white poles, while tree branches had glazed over with frozen ice and snow that perched precariously until the morning sun would come to melt it away.

Neither brother was eloquent enough to express his awe over the beauty of the scene, but neither could fail to notice it. Now free from the stifling, still air inside the house, the boys gratefully opened their mouths and breathed in the fresh coolness, enjoying the pleasure of it biting down their throats. They pulled off their gloves to coil their fingers into fists, then replaced their gloves with their fingers curled together to ward off the numbness a short while longer. They took turns petting Dickens with their fisted gloves, while Dickens huddled against them to stay warm.

Serenity filled the moment, yet in this serenity was an exhilaration surpassing yesterday’s anticipation of the storm. As the wind slowly died down with less frequent gusts, the boys felt proud to have survived the storm. Nature’s fury had left behind three feet of snow, broken tree branches, enormous snow drifts, hundreds of hours of snow removal work, and downed power lines, but it had also revived the courage of its witnesses; they were survivors like their pioneer ancestors who had fought similar storms a century before when snowblowers and electricity had not been imagined; the pioneers’ survivor spirit had resurrected itself, making the Vandelaare boys respectful admirers of Nature’s sublime power.

John’s spirits had been especially stirred by the wind, now no longer a screeching banshee voice wreaking havoc, but a simple whisper carrying the last twinkling fall of snowflakes that resembled confetti more than ice bullets. John recalled the Bible story of God’s appearance to the prophet Elijah. There had been a wind, an earthquake, and a fire, but God had not been in any of them. God had been found in a gentle whisper. Now John felt he understood that passage. The wind had subsided to a whisper, a promise of peace and renewal as the snow cleansed the earth to create a new landscape. John felt a deepened sense of contentment, as if he had learned a secret about Nature’s incredible power, yet sheltered beneath the pine tree, he felt he would always be safe in the northern wilderness, no matter how fierce the blizzards might blow.

“We better go in,” Chad broke into his brother’s thoughts. “Mom’ll be worried if we’re not in by dark.”

“Yeah,” John reluctantly agreed, “Dickens looks cold.”

The boys and their dog trudged back out of the woods. Where before the storm had caused a blinding greyness, now a tiny pink streak in the Western sky promised a fine day tomorrow.

Ellen had seen her sons heading toward the house, so she had water boiling on the stove for hot chocolate when they came inside. She told them to change their clothes before they thawed out and were wet. Then, with the storm all but forgotten, the family sat down to drink hot chocolate and play Monopoly until bedtime.

But in later years, when John would live in a far away city where fierce Northern winters were unknown, the memory of that storm would come back to him. A strong wind would recall the powerful snowfilled gusts of his childhood, and he would imagine himself once more at home, hearing the wind wailing down the chimney, or sitting beneath a pine tree’s branches to watch Nature’s sublime fury. Then he would realize how impressionable he had been to his native land’s natural rhythms where he had formed a bond with the wind, the trees, the snow, Lake Superior, and the seemingly neverending Hiawatha forest that encompassed his childhood world. Wherever he went, John was branded with the knowledge that he belonged to this place; whatever majestic sights he saw, the serenity of a snowfall surpassed them all.

For more information about Superior Heritage: The Marquette Trilogy, Book Three, visit

Lady’s Slipper Season in Upper Michigan

June 25, 2011

It’s Lady’s Slipper season in Upper Michigan, and thanks to some of my Facebook friends, I heard my favorite wildflower was in bloom around Little Presque Isle near Marquette and set out on a rainy day to get photographs. I plan to have a photo of lady’s slippers on the front cover of my next novel, Spirit of the North, which will be published in Spring 2012. In the novel, there is a pivotal scene around lady’s slippers.

In fact, lady’s slippers have been my favorite flower since I was a child growing up in Stonegate near the Crossroads where the flowers grew profusely in the woods. Even back then in the 1970s, they were illegal to pick, but we picked them all the time anyway. I don’t recommend anyone doing so now since they appear to be more rare than they were back then, although by looking hard, I easily spotted about 100 of them, growing in groups of 1 and 2, but I remember them often growing in much larger clumps when I was younger. I was more respectful when I went out to photograph them this past week, and I swear they knew I was there, admiring them and they were ready for their photo-shoot. I think because of their shape they look almost like they have faces and their own personalities. You can decide for yourself.

I did not neglect to mention Lady’s Slippers in some of my other novels, so I offer here a scene from my novel Superior Heritage in which young John Vandelaare, who is only about six years old, goes fishing with his brother and older cousins at Ives Lake where his grandfather is the caretaker, and on the way back, they stumble on a field of Lady’s Slippers.

From Superior Heritage: The Marquette Trilogy, Book Three

They were all a bit tired now from the long day, and less talkative than they had been on the way to the fishing hole. They walked with a bit of urgency because they knew it would soon be nightfall, and the forest’s thick trees would block out the remaining light.

Then, as the beautiful summer evening ended, they stumbled upon a little copse, almost a meadow really, where sunbeams broke through the trees, illuminating a small patch of the forest floor.

Suddenly, Chad cried out, “Ooh, look at the lady’s slippers!”

All turned their heads to see the meadow packed with the little pink flowers that looked like fairy slippers hanging from their stems.

“How’d we miss seeing all those before?” asked Alan.

“I saw them,” said William, who had not thought flowers worth mentioning.

Chad struggled to get out of the wagon.

“Where are you going?” Jason asked him.

“To pick some for Gwamma and Aunt Ada,” was Chad’s obvious answer.

“Hey, ain’t these flowers the kind that are illegal to pick?” asked Jason.

“Why would flowers be illegal to pick?” asked Alan.

“Because they’re rare,” said William.

“They don’t look rare,” said Alan. “There’s about a hundred of them here.”

“Let’s pick them all,” said Chad. “We can give some to Gwamma, and Aunt Ada, and some to my mom and some to your mom.” He felt overcome by a desire to give all the women pretty flowers until they would all feel as beautiful as Princess Ada.

“It’s almost dark,” said William.

“It’ll only take a minute to pick them,” Alan replied. “Besides, maybe the flowers will cheer Mom up.”

            “Mom’s not going to cheer up until Dad quits being a jerk,” William muttered; as the oldest, he was burdened with understanding his parents’ marriage better than his brothers.

“If we pick them all,” said Jason, “won’t they die from being exposed? We don’t have any water to put them in.”

“Aunt Beth will give us vases, or at least plastic bags to wrap them in,” said Alan.

While his cousins debated, John joined his brother in gathering flowers. William refused to pick any—he was too old for flower picking, even to make his mother happy. But Alan did not mind pleasing his younger cousins by joining in. Chad’s little hands filled too quickly, so he enlisted Jason in carrying his flowers to the wagon for him. Meanwhile, Alan picked ferns to make backgrounds so the bouquets of lady’s slippers would look even prettier in vases.

In ten minutes, the meadow was cleared. Heaps of delicate pink air pockets of flowers were gently laid in the wagon. Chad did not object when told he would have to walk home so his feet did not crush the flowers. He thought it nicer to walk beside the wagon and look at the pretty flowers.

lady's slippers           The boys started back down the path. John looked back to where the flowers had been. He remembered just minutes before how stunned they had all been by the flowers—how there had been a seemingly endless field of pink rising up from the decaying leaves of last autumn. Now, he only saw the decaying leaves and little broken stems sticking up where once the flowers had been. The evening sun had lowered as well, leaving the field almost dark. Already he was starting to strain his eyes to see ahead of him. He wished they had not picked all the flowers; then he could have come back tomorrow night to see the pink field again.

“I hope the DNR doesn’t catch us,” said William.

“What’s the DNR?” asked Alan.

“The Department of Natural Resources. If they catch us illegally picking all these flowers, they’ll probably throw us in jail, or make Dad pay a huge fine, and then he’ll probably ground us for a month.”

John was frightened by the thought of jail. But he felt it would serve them right if the DNR did catch them. It seemed wrong to have picked all the flowers. They had not left behind a single one. He felt the trees would be lonely and sad without the lady’s slippers.

When the boys got back to the house, Ada and Beth marveled at so many delicate flowers. Beth quickly found more empty coke bottles to serve as vases so Ada could go home with a bouquet, and the Whitman boys could bring another home for their mother.

“Thanks for having me, Beth,” Ada said, as she picked up her vase and kissed her sister-in-law goodbye.

“Any time, Ada,” said Beth.

“We wish you’d come to visit more often,” said Henry.

“It was a perfect day,” Ada said.

“Boys, what do you say to your aunt?”

“Thank you for the pwincess,” said Chad.

“Thank you for the ship,” said John, and then he turned to his cousins and added, “Thank you for taking me fishing.”

William and Jason said nothing, but Alan mussed his cousin’s hair.

“We better get home before dark or Annette will be worried,” said Bill.

William thought his mother might prefer if they did not go home, but he would not argue with his father in public. Instead, he carried his and his brothers’ fishing poles to the car trunk. A sprinkle of rain started up as everyone piled into the car.

“We’re going to have another storm tonight,” said Henry as the visitors drove away.

“Well, at least the boys got out of the house this evening,” said Beth, “though I don’t think they minded being inside since they had Ada to entertain them.”

“Did you boys have a good time with Aunt Ada?” Henry asked.

Both nodded enthusiastically.

“Well, you better get to bed now,” said Beth. “John go brush your teeth while I help Chad put on his pajamas.”

John got ready for bed, then came out into the kitchen to get a drink of water before he went to sleep. When he saw the lady’s slippers sitting on the kitchen counter, he wished he could replant them in the woods, but he knew they would not grow now.

As he started to fall asleep, a loud thunderclap made him hide his head under the blankets. He was surprised Chad could sleep through the noise. He felt the thunder was a warning he had done something wrong to pick the flowers. They had been so beautiful in the forest; they were nowhere near as pretty sitting on the counter. He wanted to cry, but he felt if his older cousins knew he cried, they would think him a baby. That he refused to cry did not make him feel any less guilty.

Find out more about Superior Heritage and all my novels at

Marquette’s Castle Brewery

May 3, 2011

 The Castle Brewery, built by George Rublein, one of the first residents of Marquette, does not feature in any of my novels. I had initially planned to set a scene in Iron Pioneersthere but later cut it out. Nevertheless, the building has struck a chord with me from early childhood because of my love for castles.

The Castle Brewery, circa 1998

Today I find the brewery’s history interesting because Rublein, like Fritz Bergmann in Iron Pioneers, was one of the German immigrants who came to Marquette in 1849 from Milwaukee. He and his wife Catherine were probably among those who suffered from the initial typhoid outbreak that summer and later in December started walking back to Milwaukee so villagers in Worcester (later Marquette) would not starve to death without their winter supplies. Fortunately, the supply ship arrived on Christmas Day and the Germans were called back to the village.

Rublein bought 160 acres of land for $1.00 on what became County Road 492. There he built his home, farm, and his beer brewery. He later would expand his business to the west end of Washington Street, building the Castle Brewery, of which a small sandstone portion remains today. Quite far from town at that time, the brewery’s beer gardens would have been a fun excursion out of town for residents.

In Iron Pioneers, the scene I did not include in the novel was to center around Karl Bergmann visiting the Castle Brewery as a young man. The visit would make him feel sentimental over his deceased father and inspire him to make his trip to Germany. Although I left out the Castle Brewery, in The Queen City, Karl did go to Germany, and when he returns, he brings home the German pickle Christmas ornament he gives to his sister Kathy. Decades later, John Vandelaare sees the ornament on his grandmother’s Christmas tree and wonders how such a strange ornament came into the family’s possession. Although no one in the family remembers how the pickle was acquired, it serves as a symbol that the past is always with us.

My grandmother never really had a pickle ornament—I just thought it an interesting German tradition, and I do have my own Christmas pickle ornament today. But Grandma always had pickles on the table at parties—bread and butter pickles. I buy them all the time—they remind me of her; we all have our comfort foods.

(The above article is from My Marquette. For more information about the book, visit

Appreciating My French Canadian Ancestors

February 17, 2011

I recently visited the exhibit about Canadians in the Upper Peninsula at the Beaumier Heritage Center in the Cohodas Building at Northern Michigan University. It’s well worth a visit to come to a better understanding of our Canadian neighbors, and it is clear many of us have roots in Canada, either reaching far back, or just an ancestor who travelled through Canada before coming to Europe. I have numerous ancestors on both sides of my family who came through Canada, including Irish, Scottish, Swiss, and French Canadian ancestors, and even some who were from New England, moved to Nova Scotia, then later came to Michigan.

Here is the section from My Marquette about my father’s side of the family, which includes my French Canadian ancestry and how that influenced the creation of some characters in The Marquette Trilogy:

The Bertrand and Tichelaar Family Branches

            One other family is mentioned in Iron Pioneers, the French-Canadian Varin family. The influence of French-Canadians in Upper Michigan could not be overlooked, and while my father’s family is not from Marquette, they are French-Canadian long-term residents of Upper Michigan. In Iron Pioneers, the first fictional character to appear is Pierre Varin, a voyageur traveling with Father Marquette. He is later the ancestor of Jean Varin, husband of Suzanne Varin, who comes to Marquette in the 1850s.

My paternal grandmother was Harriet Bertrand, and her French-Canadian ancestors had been in Montreal since the 1600s and in Menominee, Michigan since the 1880s. In fact, the name Varin is among my ancestral surnames, but a few generations earlier than my grandmother. While my mother’s family has the long history with Marquette, my father’s family has a far longer history in the Great Lakes region. My most notable paternal ancestor was the famous explorer and Governor of the Wisconsin Territories, Nicolas Perrot. Consequently, I created an early voyageur character in Pierre Varin, and then reintroduced the Varin family to Marquette. I chose to have Jean Varin die in the Civil War so Suzanne could marry Lucius Brookfield, as my ancestor Basil Bishop had remarried a younger woman after his wife’s death, although Basil’s second wife was in her early sixties at the time, not a young twenty-something. Suzanne’s family moves away from Marquette to Wisconsin, but over time her descendants move back to Michigan, and one descendant, Marie Varin, marries a Dutch immigrant named Vandelaare. My Grandpa Tichelaar was a Dutch immigrant, and so consequently, I connected a fictional version of my father’s family into The Marquette Trilogy when Tom Vandelaare, son of Marie Varin and her Dutch husband, marries Ellen Whitman, daughter of Henry and Beth Whitman.


Needless to say, French Canadians had a huge influence on the building of America. Nicholas Perrot, my most noteworthy French Canadian ancestor had countless descendants, and if you are one of his relatives, you may be interested in the society for his descendants:

French Canadians descendants have spread across the world. Another fascinating example is my ancestor Jean Guyon (1592-1663), one of the first settlers in Quebec. Not only is Jean Guyon my ancestor, but he is also the ancestor to Hilary Clinton, Alanis Morrisette, Celine Dion, Angelina Jolie, and Camilla Parker-Bowles the Duchess of Cornwall. Here is one story about their relationships:

Our Canadian neighbors have given us much to be grateful for in the building of the United States. In future posts, I’ll mention some of my other Canadian roots.


January 19, 2011

Today I had the privilege of being invited to talk to the residents at Brookridge Heights Assisted Living whose reading group has been reading My Marquette. I had a wonderful time getting to meet everyone and hearing many stories of Old Marquette. Many of them could have written their own books. In their honor, here is the section from My Marquette about Brookridge.

            Because of my memory, I can always be back in the past again—like when I drive along County Road 553, and I come around the curve into Marquette, still expecting to see the old Brookridge Estate standing there, momentarily forgetting it’s been torn down. As long as I remember, the past is still part of the present for me, and I’ll always be able to live in Old Marquette. As I get older, I imagine I’ll live even more in the past, but maybe that’s what it means to get older.” — Superior Heritage

I grew up by the Crossroads south of town, so whenever I came into Marquette with my parents on County Road 553, I would pass by the old Brookridge estate. I was always a bookworm, always reading in the backseat of the car, but when we approached the curve where the road came into Marquette, I would reverently look up from my book and turn my head to the right where the Brookridge estate stood proudly like some old English estate, the home of a country squire, a carriage house in the back, an apple orchard to the side, and with a lane lined with Lombardy Poplars that led up to the front door. In those days, I felt if I could have lived in any house in Marquette, the Brookridge estate would have been the one. The entire property spoke of a time past, a simpler time that created within me a sort of “Good Old Days” nostalgia. Although it was by then abandoned and a couple of its windows broken, the house’s stately presence could still be felt. I dreamed of the day when I would purchase it and rename it Plumfield after the boys’ school in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Men, one of my favorite books at the time—the ideal place for a boy to grow up.

Even when I found out that the Brookridge Estate had originally been the Marquette County Poor Farm, I thought no less of it. If anything, I probably thought that made it all the better—it had been a charitable place, and a farm, and so had Plumfield been as the Bhaers took in boys to their school and turned their lives around.

            The first poor farm in Marquette began on this site in 1873. In 1900, Marquette residents decided an improved structure was necessary and the new facility, the one I would so grow to love, was built at a cost of $15,000 in 1901. The staunch new building of red brick, sandstone, and yellow trim looked like a giant, solid home, a safe haven. Twenty-seven rooms sat on forty-seven acres of pastures, orchards, and woods surrounded by a brook. The farm produced vegetables and potatoes and even had some cows to produce dairy products.

Brookridge Estate - early 1900s - Courtesy Jack Deo at Superior View

            While officially named the Marquette County Citizens’ Home, everyone in Marquette commonly knew it as “the Poor Farm.” Its residents were self-sustaining, taking care of the house and property. Fred Rydholm, local Marquette historian, noted in a 1986 Mining Journal article that his mother worked there as a nurse about 1912 at which time it also served as Marquette’s earliest nursing home, primarily for older people including lumberjacks in their sunset years. At its peak, as many as thirty-five people lived in the house, but by the mid-twentieth century, the population declined. When the building finally closed its doors in 1965, it had only a dozen residents remaining.

After a vacancy of four years, the house became a teaching facility, operated by the Marquette Alger Intermediate School District, for emotionally impaired children, at which time it was renamed Brookridge. Funds to sustain the property were so scarce that after a dozen years, the house was closed up. It was during the years it was closed that I remember it.

Various attempts were made to save the property as a historical landmark and it was even listed on the National and State Registers of Historic Places for its distinctive early twentieth century architecture. Talk of turning the property into a country inn or a holistic healthcare center fell through in the 1980s. Then in 1994, the property was sold to Marquette General Hospital and the grand old house razed.

I was devastated by the tearing down of my dream home. I still have all the articles from The Mining Journal about the debate over what to do with the property and its eventual demolition. I am no poet, but I was moved enough at the time to write a mournful poem over the loss of my imaginary home, which I’ll spare the reader from perusing.

Like John Vandelaare in the quotation above, every once in a while I still catch myself in a time warp, turning my head as I drive by to look at the old Brookridge Estate. Since 1998, the modern Brookridge Heights assisted living facility has stood in its place, but in my mind’s eye, the grand old house is still there, waiting for me to ride up to it on my horse and announce I am home like any good English country squire would do.